PART IV: The Peachy-slash-Cheesy Tournament of Champions
A human tsunami of dirt-caked, soot-stained servants came barreling down the corridor at the boys. The giant writhing knot of flailing arms and legs and spinning, bickering heads quickly overwhelmed them, carrying Gehry in one direction and Kinsmere in another. Bruce and Gerwin managed to keep track of each other for a few seconds after the crowd had reached them, but then lost sight of one another for good.
There were protests from the boys:
“You’re tickling me!”
But for all the listening the servants did, they may as well have been deaf.
A smaller pack of servants brought each of the boys to his very own dressing room. Big, warm, fully furnished, the sight of these luxurious rooms let Gehry, Kinsmere, and Bruce know that the Peachy Knight had purposely given them the castle’s worst accommodations the night before. Each of the underslept boys gazed longingly at the big, plushly blanketed beds.
But there was no time for a nap.
Moments after the boys had been swept into the rooms, another wave of dirty, scrawny men, women, boys, and girls surged in carrying an array of large, shiny objects. It looked like armor. Not full suits, but bits and pieces taken from here or there. Or, perhaps, from a trash heap. Amidst the chaos, Gehry glimpsed a dented chest plate, Kinsmere saw a visor-less helmet, and Bruce noted more than a dozen sizeable holes in a chainmail shirt.
The armor-carrying servants handed their loads over to the other servants, who immediately set about dressing the young contestants. Little to no attention was paid to the sizes and shapes of the pieces of armor and the sizes and shapes of the boys’ bodies. They were squeezed and stuffed into steel pants tight enough to slow the flow of the blood in their veins, pushed and pulled into heavy iron vests intended for full-grown men.
There were protests:
“Okay – that really tickles!”
But the servants were too focused on their tasks to listen.
The madness, fortunately, didn’t last long. Fully, if not fittingly, armored, the boys were finally ready for the tournament. The servants nudged, shoved, and at times even carried the boys out of their dressing rooms and down the castle’s crowded corridors.
There were protests:
“Yes – I know I’m weirdly ticklish!”
But amidst such chaos, the servants couldn’t hear a thing. Nudging, shoving, and carrying when they had to, the servants brought the boys down the last of the castle’s corridors, through the front doors, and out onto the lawn.
The crowd assembled outside of the Peachy Knight’s castle contained an extraordinary assortment of people. There were men from every profession imaginable, and women from the highest and the lowest classes, not to mention all of those in between. Packs of screaming children tore around the property staging their very own tournaments, competing to see who could throw the farthest, run the fastest, jump the highest, or shout the loudest.
Seeing the children, Gehry, Kinsmere, and Bruce each couldn’t help but think back to the day before last, when they had been so much younger than they were now. They had spent that oh-so-distant afternoon tossing stones at the slope’s big oak tree, and now, a mere two days later, they were far from home, wearing mismatched suits of armor and preparing to compete in their very first tournament.
Gerwin, the wizard-to-be, was out there, too. Currently he was keeping a close eye on a man dressed in an enormous, painfully bright orange shirt. The boy jammed his fingers into his ears as the man, tripping constantly over his ill-fitting shirt, climbed atop a nearby barrel and brought a strange, trumpet-like instrument to his lips. Inhaling deeply, the man blew into the horn, which emitted a high-pitched squeal as harsh as anything that had ever been heard in the Realm. It was like the scraping of a thousand knives on a thousand bare plates. The noise caused several men to drop to their knees. One woman vomited. Dogs as far as two miles from the castle fainted dead away.
Lowering his instrument, the horn-blower gave everybody a moment to recover. Then he said, “Would the owner of a blue, four-wheeled cart please move your vehicle to the designated parking area. You are currently parked in the middle of a contest zone.”
There was some mumbling among the members of the crowd, and then a man stepped forward and raised a hand to get the horn-blower’s attention. “What kind of blue?” he said.
The horn-blower blinked down at him from atop his barrel. “What do you mean? It’s a blue, four-wheeled cart.”
“Yeah, yeah. But what kind of blue? Is it light? Is it dark? Is it like the sea’s blue, or is more like the sky?”
The horn-blower considered for a second. “I guess . . . Well, I guess it’s light. But a bit more like the sea than the sky.”
The man from the crowd nodded, as if he found this description deeply interesting.
“So,” the horn-blower asked at last. “Is it yours, or . . . ?”
“No, no, no,” said the man in the crowd. He chuckled. “I walked here.”
The horn-blower glared at the man, then turned back to the rest of the crowd and made an amended announcement.
“Would the owner of a light, sort of sea-blue, four-wheeled cart please move your vehicle to the designated parking area. You are currently parked in the middle of a contest zone.”
No one moved to do so.
Someone shouted, “Start the stinkin’ tourney already!”
The horn-blower sighed and then quickly muttered, “Andnowitismyhonortoannouncetheofficialstartoftheseconddayoftheworldfamoussemiannualpeachyslashcheesytournamentofchampionsletthegamesbegin.”
The crowd went wild. They clapped and cheered, embraced one another and leapt gleefully into the air.
Amidst all the jumping and jostling bodies, Gehry finally spotted Kinsmere, then Bruce. He began to make his way toward them, but it was slow-going in his too-big, mismatched armor. Before Gehry could even get near enough to call out to them, he was swallowed up by a swarm of servants.
“Wait!” he cried. “My friends! Just give me a second!”
“We don’t have any of those,” one of the servants told him.
“Not even one,” said another.
And a third, giving Gehry a firm, encouraging slap on the back, said, “Your event’s about to begin!”
The servants brought Gehry around the corner of the castle to a portion of the lawn that had been set up for jousting. Or so it seemed. A large rectangular patch of grass with a dirt track running down the center had been fenced off. Gehry thought the track was too narrow, so thin it could easily confuse a horse. Maybe the course wasn’t fully set up yet? There wasn’t a lance or a shield in sight. There weren’t any horses, either.
The servants motioned for Gehry to head to the center of the arena. He went, looking around for a clue as to what was going on.
A crowd had begun to form along the fence. Kids squeezed themselves in beside their parents, desperate for an uninterrupted view of the action. Further back, infants and toddlers and even a few smaller adults were being lifted up and set on other spectator’s shoulders.
But there were still no horses. Or lances. And where was Gehry’s opponent?
One of these three things showed up a moment later.
The crowd along the fence suddenly parted, making a big enough gap for a normal-sized man to squeeze through. But there was nothing remotely normal-sized about the man now entering the arena. It was the Cheesy Knight. Gehry recognized the sour tang that accompanied the man from the night before. But the quick glimpse Gehry had gotten of the man in that dark, smelly corridor hadn’t prepared him for what he saw now. A towering stack of broad, bulging muscles, the Cheesy Knight made his brother, the Peachy Knight, seem puny. The man seemed to be quite battle-tested, too. His armor appeared to have been bent, broken, and fused back together several times. This, Gehry finally realized, was because the suit had been fashioned using pieces of armor originally made for a horse. There was even a faded stamp of a horseshoe in the corner of his thigh plate to prove it.
Gehry knew it was important that he stay calm. At the very least, he had to do a convincing job pretending to stay calm. He had learned this from his books. And standing there on the Peachy Knight’s lawn, watching that man’s monstrous brother stomp toward him, certain passages that Gehry had set to memory in the comfort of his castle back home began to pop into his mind.
There are two kinds of knights: those who are brave, undaunted by even the greatest of dangers, and those who are able to conceal their fears behind showy pronouncements, loud shouts, and exquisite posture.
Not feeling particularly brave at the moment, Gehry knew he had better do some concealing. He kept his eyes fastened on the Cheesy Knight’s, and reminded himself of all that he had overheard the night before – that this terrifying, fatally massive man had some sort of evil design against Gehry’s father, and was planning on using Gehry and his friends to help see it through – in the hopes that it would bring about anger, if not bravery.
The Cheesy Knight strode right up to Gehry, stopping only once he was a foot away. Gehry had to tip his head back as far as it could go so he could continue to look the man in the eye.
“Ready?” the Cheesy Knight asked him, sending a sharp, moldy breath crashing across Gehry’s face.
Somehow, Gehry managed to not even flinch. And despite the fact that he had no idea what was supposed to be prepared for, he told the man, “I’m ready.”
The Cheesy Knight gave Gehry a cocky smirk. Then he leaned in close and belched into the boy’s face.
At first, Gehry thought the Cheesy Knight was greeting him according to the customs of his, Gehry’s, castle. It was, after all, Gehry’s father who had institutionalized the practice of belching in the face of a guest, friend, or family member. Over the years, it had become a deeply respectful gesture, an intimate symbol of letting another into your private life by giving them a whiff of your insides. And while it was true that the Cheesy Knight was secretly orchestrating some kind of sinister plot against King Beribahn and, very possibly, the entire Realm, Gehry decided that the guy must have at least a smidgen of non-rogue decency in him.
So Gehry dug down deep and, popping up onto his toes to get his mouth a little closer to the Cheesy Knight’s face, he belched right back at the man.
The Cheesy Knight wrenched his head back. He seemed surprised by the force of the boy’s belch. He really shouldn’t have been. As the king’s son, Gehry had to be able to belch – and belch well – easily and on command. On holidays and other feast days, when lords and ladies from all over the Realm came to pay their respects to the royal family, Gehry had to stand beside his mother and father for hours at a time, belching into the faces of hundreds of people in a row.
The Cheesy Knight clearly hadn’t known this, for he was still looking down at Gehry with an expression that was equal parts amazement and, it seemed, fear. Gehry gave the man a moment to get his emotions under control, and looked once more around the arena. The lances and shields and horses definitely should have been there by now.
He turned back to the Cheesy Knight, thinking he would just ask him what the holdup was. But before Gehry could get a word out, the man leaned back down and belched for a second time in the boy’s face.
Wincing at the unexpected gust of nastiness, Gehry thought the Cheesy Knight’s behavior exceedingly strange. Because you never belched in someone’s face twice. At least not one after another like that.
Gehry looked up at the man, confused.
“Done already, then?” the Cheesy Knight asked him. He was smirking again. “Nothing left in that” – he dropped his voice into a toddler’s whimper – “wittle taiwny bewwy of yours?”
What kind of tournament is this? Gehry wondered. And then, suddenly, his brain leapt back to the previous night, to when he had overheard the Cheesy Knight and his brother “practicing” for the tournament. They had held a “posterior” gas-off, as opposed to an “anterior” one. In other words, they had farted instead of belched. But Gehry could only suppose that this here, this event that he currently found himself competing against the Cheesy Knight in, was the other kind. It was a belching contest. And a belching contest was something that Gehry, King Beribahn’s one and only son, had been born and bred to excel in.
Grinning up at the now somehow not-so-intimidating rogue knight before him, Gehry said, “Oh no. Don’t you worry. I’ve got plenty left.”
Gehry gave the Cheesy Knight a second whiff of his insides:
This time, the rogue knight remained perfectly still, letting the belch waft over him. Once the brunt of it had passed, however, the man dropped his head and gazed glassily at the foot or so of dirt track between him and Gehry.
Gehry immediately recognized the man’s expression. The Cheesy Knight was neither dazed nor distracted. He was fully focused, searching inside himself for an airy pocket of nastiness. And so Gehry was ready when the man brought his head back up and unleashed a beast of a belch:
It was extraordinary. Gehry wasn’t sure whether he had ever encountered such a powerful belch. He had certainly never been on the receiving end of such a thing. He was so overwhelmed by the sudden and storm-like force of the cheesy emission that he staggered back several steps.
As soon as he had stopped and steadied himself, the crowd began to clap. It was, Gehry realized, the quiet, polite sort of clapping that a tournament crowd might do if a contestant threw a particularly nice horseshoe or shot an arrow near, but not directly through, the bullseye.
Gehry looked out at the crowd. Then he looked down at the dirt track that ran clear across the arena. It was too narrow, as he had noted before, to accommodate a pair of horses. But it was perfectly proportioned for a pair of people.
All at once Gehry understood how this belching contest worked. He saw how one of the competitors could eventually “beat” the other. Exchanging nothing but belches, he and the Cheesy Knight were to try and force each other back along the dirt track, all the way to the fence at the opposite end of the arena.
To make sure he was right about this, Gehry pretended that the Cheesy Knight’s belch had swung around for a second attack. Waving his hands in front of his face, coughing and clutching at his throat, he stumbled back another step.
Once again, as soon as he had stopped and steadied himself, the crowd quietly, politely clapped.
The Cheesy Knight grinned over at the spectators. He gave them a few winks and a quick wave. Gehry could tell that the rogue knight believed himself to be on his way to an easy victory. He was so confident he was going to win that he didn’t even bother advancing on Gehry. He stayed there in the middle of the arena, at the very center of the dirt track, and let the boy walk back up to his starting position.
Heading there, more words popped into Gehry’s mind. These, however, weren’t from books. They were the words Gehry’s father had said to him at his send-off feast, the night before he and his friends had set out on this adventure. We know you’ll make us, and the Realm itself, as proud as we could ever hope to be.
Gehry glared up at the Cheesy Knight. He dug deep, deeper than he ever had before, and pulled up a belch as fierce as any he had belched before. The force of it nearly sent him, Gehry, toppling to the ground:
The Cheesy Knight fared even worse. Staggering back, tilting and tipping, his face contorted in horror.
As the crowd clapped and murmured, Gehry strode forward, stopping only once the toes of his boots were an inch from the Cheesy Knight’s. There, he tipped his head back defiantly, welcoming the best – or worst – that the rogue knight had to offer.
Now that Gehry had a handle on the rules of the contest, things moved fast. So fast, in fact, that the spectators soon last track of whose belch was whose, which odor had come from which competitor. Now and again, even the competitors got confused. Their belches bled together, the stinks mixing to create brand-new stenches, ones that had never before been sniffed by a human nostril.
Yet Gehry and the Cheesy Knight battled on. They leaped and leaned through the cloud of foul gas that had built up around them, and sent one belch after another crashing across each other’s faces.
The competitors’ back-and-forth soon grew so intense that the crowd was forced to ignore the belching entirely. The only way to keep track of the contest was to focus on the contestants’ feet. How many steps did the boy just take back? How far did the Cheesy Knight stumble? Where was each competitor in relation to the fence behind him?
Of course, Gehry and the Cheesy Knight had to keep track of this, too. After every few belches, they had to look down at the strip of dirt beneath their feet or glance back at the arena behind them.
It was a tight battle. Gehry would make a gain – but then the Cheesy Knight would advance on him. Gehry would fire back fiercer than ever – but then the Cheesy Knight would bring up a belch twice as powerful as his last.
Eventually, Gehry got tired. His body had simply had enough. His stomach was tight and twisted. His throat ached. His eyes were desert dry. His nostrils burned as if he had sniffed a lit torch. And as the pain and discomfort grew worse and worse, he began to realize that the contest couldn’t be won by burps alone. He and the Cheesy Knight had proven themselves to be evenly matched. If they tired at a similar rate, they might be able to go on forever – or at least until one of them fainted from exhaustion.
But what could Gehry do?
He thought – then stopped thinking, briefly, to tug up a belch – and then thought some more. And eventually, amid the blurps and BLERGHs, Gehry found in his head another passage from his books.
Now and again, a knight may encounter a foe unbeatable by force or quickness alone. In such situations, cleverness must be employed in order to win the day. Looking past the body, to the vulnerability hidden away within all of us, the knight must locate the soft spot carried in his enemy’s soul. With a sharp enough barb, the knight can strike a deadly blow. Picture a thorn piercing a barely boiled egg – driving beyond the solid outside to reach the soft, runny center.
Gehry could practically taste that gooey yoke. But where, he wondered, was the Cheesy Knight’s soft spot? It took him another minute – enough time for both him and the Cheesy Knight to fire off another eight belches each – but then it came to him. He remembered something else he had heard the night before when listening in on the Peachy and the Cheesy Knight’s conversation.
After his next belch, Gehry said, “Hey.”
The Cheesy Knight belched back. “Hey, yourself.”
“You sure – blaaarghaerrrree! – you’re really a knight?”
“I’m – blurrrrP! – among the finest knights – blaghh! – there has ever been.”
“That’s weird. Cause – BERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRGH! – every great knight I’ve ever known has had their own castle.”
The Cheesy Knight’s lips, opened wide to release another grisly burst of gas, began to quiver. Then they shut.
“And, I mean, this – ” Gehry gestured toward the castle behind him. “ – this is the Peachy Knight’s castle. Your brother’s, not yours. Everyone knows that.”
The rogue knight blinked. “Th-they do?” he asked.
“Oh, yeah,” Gehry said. “Definitely. Everyone in the whole Realm. They all talk about the Peachy Knight. They say, ‘Sure. Guy’s got his very own castle!’ But when someone says, ‘Doesn’t he have a brother?’ people are always, ‘Does he? I don’t think so. If he does, I’ve never heard of him.’”
The Cheesy Knight’s head began to shake, tiny nervous ticks back and forth. “Th-the name,” he said. “We’re changing it. It’s just – the paperwork. We’re – ”
“Right,” Gehry said, interrupting the rogue knight’s stammering explanation. “But I’ve heard horror stories about that. The paperwork – it can take a lifetime.”
The Cheesy Knight stumbled back a few steps.
Gehry took a few steps forward. “And it’s too bad, too,” he said. “Since, you know, once a guy’s gone, if he didn’t have his own castle . . . ” He shrugged. “Well, how are people gonna remember him?”
“B-b-because – ”
“So many knights forgotten,” Gehry said. “Some great ones, too, I bet. Maybe even some of the greatest!” He tsked his tongue. “If only they’d had a castle named after them.”
The Cheesy Knight fell back a little farther, and then farther still, until he stood just a few feet from the arena’s fence. The crowd had quieted down to hear what Gehry was saying, and so they offered no help in clueing the rogue knight in on how close he was to losing the contest. But even if the spectators had been hooting and hollering, it probably wouldn’t have mattered much for the Cheesy Knight. He was terribly distracted, busy both trying to refute Gehry’s claims and convince himself that he would go down in history as a great, brave, and revered knight despite the fact that he didn’t have a castle that bore his name.
Gehry was patient, standing by while the Cheesy Knight stumbled and stammered away. He focused on gathering the necessary gas for what he hoped would be his final belch. He was just about depleted, and if one last big belch didn’t bring about a victory, Gehry wasn’t sure he would have anything left to fight with.
“But I’m – the signs,” the Cheesy Knight was saying. “There’s the – the little cheeses on the signs? P-p-people – th-they – they see them. The signs – they see the signs and they – ”
That was when Gehry let loose:
The rogue knight went silent. His eyes, wide and worried, slowly rolled back. And then, his limbs as stiff as if he had been seized by a sudden paralysis, the man tipped backwards and cracked his head on the top of the fence.
The crowd erupted. Men, women, boys, and girls all hopped the fence and, rushing toward Gehry, stepping on the downed Cheesy Knight if they had to, lifted the boy up into the air. They carried him around the arena as if he were a trophy and they were the winners, everybody squirming to get closer, desperate to give Gehry their congratulations, to lay their hands upon him for even the briefest of moments.
Text copyright © 2020 by Jarrett Lerner
All right reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.